(Bloomberg) — Australia said one of its surveillance planes was cut off by a Chinese fighter jet in international airspace over the South China Sea in the latest encounter between the militaries of the two countries.
The RAAF P-8 aircraft was undertaking routine maritime surveillance activity on May 26 when it was intercepted by a J-16 fighter aircraft that “resulted in a dangerous maneuver which posed a safety threat” to the P-8 and its crew, the Department of Defence said in a statement Sunday.
The J-16 fighter had flown “very close to the side” of the P-8 aircraft, Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles said at a press conference Sunday.
“In flying close to the side, it released flares, the J-16 then accelerated and cut across the nose of the P-8, settling in front” at very close range, he said. “At that moment, it then released a bundle of chaff which contains small pieces of aluminum, some of which were ingested into the engine of the P-8 aircraft. Quite obviously, this is very dangerous.”
The Department of Defence made representations to the Chinese authorities, Marles said, expressing concern particularly at the manner in which the safety of the Australian aircraft and crew had been placed in jeopardy.
He said Australia, like other countries, has for decades undertaken maritime surveillance in the South China Sea, in accordance with international law.
The incident follows one in February when a Chinese navy vessel sailing through the Arafura Sea shone a laser at an Australian reconnaissance plane. Then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison branded it an “act of intimidation.”
Beijing has widened its control over the South China Sea in the past decade, building artificial structures on disputed territory and sending large ships to prevent neighboring countries from fishing and extracting energy from the waters.
Asked whether the incident could raise tensions, Marles highlighted China’s increased activities in the region in recent years.
“Obviously, we do not want to see an increase in militarization in the South China Sea,” he told reporters. “This is a body of water, which is deeply connected to Australia because of our trade, which goes through there.”
Ties between Australia and China have deteriorated in recent years over issues ranging from investment to alleged foreign interference in domestic politics. They plunged in 2020 when Morrison called for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19, infuriating Beijing which responded with punitive trade actions targeting Australian commodities from coal to barley, lobsters and wine.
Morrison lost office to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in a May 21 election and since then China has signaled the possibility of improving relations. Albanese has to date suggested trade restrictions would need to be repealed before any warming of ties.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during a visit to Papua New Guinea, told reporters a reset in the China-Australia relationship required “concrete actions” and there was “no autopilot.”
“The crux of the difficulties in China–Australia relations in the past few years is that some political force in Australia insists on viewing China as a rival rather than a partner and framing China’s development as a threat rather than an opportunity,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement citing Wang.
“The solution is looking at China and China–Australia relations in a sensible and positive way, uphold mutual respect, seek common ground while shelving differences, and create the necessary conditions for bringing bilateral relations back on the normal track,” it said.
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